Russian 'Yoga Journal' Interview
1. When did you first get interested in art?
When I was a child my father taught me how to draw airplanes and sailing ships, then I later found a book called Tanks and How to Draw Them, so I learned a lot about figurative detail and perspective by copying these drawings of military vehicles. I was always good with my hands, so drawing, model making, carpentry and constructing astronomical telescopes were skills that came naturally to me as a teenager, as did drawing and illustration. However, I was born with red-green 'colorblindness', which is difficult to explain to people who believe that this world exists only as they see it, and ironically I wasn't allowed to enter Art College because of this. But in retrospect this was probably a good thing, as it left me free to follow my own creative impetus rather than an academic or conceptually imposed one.
2. How did you first encounter Tibetan sacred art?
When I was fourteen my severely handicapped little sister died at the age of three, but the following day she came to me in spirit form to show me who she really was as a luminous being, full of intelligence, love and grace. This afterlife experience of the continuity of her consciousness changed the course of my life and still remains vivid in memory, so the seeds of all the great Platonic questions took root in my mind at quite an early age. By seventeen I was homeless and living an itinerant life on the road, but being mystically inclined in the early 1960's was now becoming more acceptable. So I soon gravitated towards the Gnostic spiritual traditions of the East, which revealed an immanent rather than a transcendental philosophical view. And of course the Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist traditions possess extremely metaphysical representational forms in their art, with their vast pantheons of benign deities and ferocious demons which manifest from the enlightened human mind.
3. Who was your art teacher?
I wouldn't really say that I actually had an art teacher as such, as essentially I was self-taught in terms of learning through my own experience, research and mistakes. But I definitely had 'mentors' who have continued to inspire me throughout the course of my life. The first and foremost of these was a Welsh artist named John F. B. Miles (1944-97), who adopted me as a lifelong friend when I was about seventeen. Although John was just three years older than me, he was light-years ahead of any other Western artist I have ever known of in terms of his artistic knowledge, versatility, skill and phenomenal personal power. In my mind John was one of the greatest visionary painters of our time, and some of his writings and highly intricate mandala paintings can be found on my website
However, most of the Tibetan artists that I have been influenced by were anonymous, and rather than being recognized personalities, they tended to have merged their personal identities into the continuity of the Vajrayana Buddhist traditions that they served. So it is the entire artistic lineage of this tradition itself that has been and continues to be my teacher, and although I no longer draw or paint myself, this connection is maintained as a vital aspect of my awareness, which is never static but always fresh. In terms of modern conceptual art the notion of a collective lineage of artistic fidelity is perhaps a little difficult to understand: yet to me it has the most profound spiritual meaning and integrity, and paradoxically its creative freedom is actually quite limitless. I often liken this to great Indian musicians, who can spontaneously improvise within a raga while the music flows directly through them, such that they only serve as a conduit for the melodic structure of the music itself. Ragas were originally musical invocations to some specific deities of the Hindu pantheon, but to the untrained ear they may all tend to sound the same.
4. How did you end up in India/Nepal, and what role did these countries play in your life?
I ended up in India and Nepal because this was where I was destined to end up, and in many ways I've never really left there. By 1969 I had some degree of theoretically knowledge about the esoteric traditions of the East, and was already incorporating much of this symbolic understanding into my artwork at this time. But at the end of this year I underwent a psychedelically induced "kundalini crisis", which was to endure in its severity for many years as it unleashed a terrifying array of perceptual distortions and psychic states that are still hard for me to describe. It was in this condition that I traveled overland to India in 1970, where I was to remain for the next five years, with another year in Nepal.
And it was here that I seriously began to practice thangka painting, learning from the examples of several Tibetan artists who were then living in exile in northwest India. The vivid imagery of the Vajrayana deities resonated strongly with my own psychological and psychic processes at this time. So it was much more of a primeval or aboriginal instinct, rather than any intellectual impetus, that propelled me towards these visionary realms of the peaceful and wrathful deities I was now depicting. For unlike most Western spiritual seekers at that time I was not seeking to attain enlightenment - I just wanted to find my way back to the safety of conventional reality, I just wanted to be 'normal' again. Of course, there wasn't a way back, but there was a way forward, and this was a long journey, most of which was completely internal. So in many ways India was a far more beneficial alternative for me than a psychiatric hospital in the UK.
5. What is your attitude to Buddhism as a religious tradition, and what place does it occupy in your life?
My attitude to Buddhism as a religious tradition is quite positive; especially when it exists in whatever cultural context it originally took root in. But when asked, I never define myself as a Buddhist, even though my main purpose in life has been to awaken to my own essential or innate nature, and this has never been an abstraction for me. It's not a question of an outer identity, but of an inner reality that I now never experience as being separate from. So the religious tradition that I follow, believe in and now continuously explore exists solely within my own Mind, or Soul, or Spirit, or Consciousness, or Buddha Nature. For whatever name one gives to this continuum of awareness does not change or affect its essential nature, which is the ultimate ground of our being.
In Vajrayana Buddhism such practice traditions of direct insight are identified with Mahamudra and Dzogchen, which respectively mean the 'Great Seal' and the 'Great Perfection'. But I feel uneasy in equating the panoramic awareness that result from these realizations of 'great immaculate nakedness' as being the sole possession of any culture or religious tradition that exists in this world, because I now find the strongest evidence for its spontaneous occurrence amongst many of those who temporarily depart this from world during a near-death experience (NDE). These are people who tend to see the Light rather than the light-shade. And to be quite honest, I am now far more involved in NDE and afterlife-related research than I am in Buddhism, especially in regard to the lifelong spiritual transformation that commonly arises from a near-death experience. I find exquisite beauty and deep meaning in this research, especially since the accidental death of my eldest daughter seven years ago. In this respect, any religious tradition may prove to be of little benefit, and this can apply to Buddhism too, even though its now fashionable to describe Buddhism as a 'science of the mind' rather than a religion.
6. Do you draw a line between Buddhist art and Buddhism as a religion, or are they inseparably interwoven for you?
For me personally there has never been any division whatsoever between the doctrines of Buddhism and their visual expression through art: in fact I would say that virtually all of my knowledge and understanding of Buddhism came from questioning what I was depicting as a practitioner of Tibetan painting, for the entire teachings of Buddhism are encapsulated within the symbolism of its vast pantheon of deities and their attributes. So after thirty or more years working alone at the drawing board a lot of answers to these questions have intuitively arisen, sometimes like revelations in the Biblical sense of this word. But more important was the perseverance developed from the continuity of actually doing this work, which in many ways was like being in semi-retreat for years on end.
So yes, they are inseparably interwoven for me, but I wouldn't say this necessarily applies to Buddhist art as commodities that are now bought and sold in auction houses and galleries, with their financial values usually determined by their age, rarity and provenance. I once heard about a monk's alms-bowl that fetched a high price in a London auction house some years ago, and was reminded of this recently in Moscow when I was shown a small Buddha statue made of gold and studded with diamonds and other precious stones.
7. What drew you to Buddhist symbolism?
What initially drew me to Buddhist symbolism was the art itself, which in many ways first served as the therapeutical remedy for the terrifying personal psychosis I referred to earlier. Yet even before this I was fascinated by the symbolism of religious art, just like Carl Jung had been, and of all the things that people search for in life, it's the search for meaning itself that is probably the most important. And of all the world's great artistic and spiritual traditions, there are few that possess the psychological depths and panoramic complexity of Vajrayana Buddhism. For like a living organism it has grown from the philosophical roots of early Indian Buddhism for more than two thousand years, with countless numbers of Asia's great scholars and practitioners synthesizing and commentating upon the manifold aspects of the Buddhist teachings. And the real beauty is that many of these teachings have been transmitted through lineages that are still intact, and thus readily accessible to anyone who seeks to understand them, although this invariably implies that much time and dedication are needed to fully integrate them into one's life.
8. What inspired/motivated you to write/draw your Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs? And why specifically Tibetan symbols and motifs?
Actually I could have entitled this book the Encyclopedia of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Symbols and Motifs, because virtually all of these symbols and motifs were of early Indian Buddhist origin. Vajrayana Buddhism flourished throughout India and Central Asia until the iconoclasm of Islam permeated these once pantheistic kingdoms, until Buddhism itself was finally vanquished from India after the twelfth century. But during the four centuries prior to the Islamic invasion the teachings of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism had been transmitted into Tibet by various Indian Buddhist scholars, gurus and translators, where they were subsequently systematized into what is now popularly known as 'Tibetan Buddhism'. In whichever country Buddhism took root there was a similar story, with the three principle branches of Indian Buddhism - Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana - adapting into the existing culture of that country in its own unique way. But with Vajrayana, which represents the final flowering of Buddhism in India, the culture into which it was most readily absorbed was that of Tibet.
What motivated me to illustrate and write the 'Encyclopedia', and later the more concise and user-friendly 'Handbook', was that throughout the many years that I had been drawing and studying Buddhist iconography, I had amassed a somewhat unique perspective on what it all meant and of how it all fitted together into an exquisitely beautiful and meaningful wholeness or unity. So I set out to present what I had come to understand - both from what I had learned and from what had been revealed to me intuitively - a manual in words and pictures that would cover almost the entire spectrum of Buddhist symbols and attributes, everything that might appear in a Tibetan thangka with the exception of the deities themselves.
9. How your enchantment with Buddhist symbols and iconography affects your daily life?
In material terms my enchantment with Tibetan iconography has had quite a devastating effect on my life, and I would never advise anyone to follow the path that I took! In terms of financial rewards I would have earned more from washing dishes in a restaurant that from all the work I have done in the name of the Dharma. My 'Encyclopedia' itself took me about eight years of consistent work to complete, and it's only recently that I have began to receive proper royalties for this book by assigning the rights to Shambhala Publications in the USA.
From its inception in the West, which really began in the early 1970's, Tibetan Buddhism has now developed strong roots and is here to stay. But much of this development has relied on voluntary work and fundraising, and the impact this has had on my life has been relentless, with several thousand well-intentioned Buddhist groups asking me to freely work or provide imagery for their charitable projects. This has always been the biggest and most depressing problem for me, as it's in my nature to help others. So my enchantment lies with the iconography itself, rather than with those who so often crave it.
Because of this I now tend to live a more reclusive life and have little contact with Buddhist groups in the West. In recent years I have become quite involved with the community of Newar artists of the Kathmandu Valley, who depict both Hindu and Buddhist deities. Many of these painters and statue makers are incredibly gifted, and it has been a source of great joy for me to help nourish their skills and support them as friends, for more than anything they remind me of myself when I was younger and aspiring for artistic perfection.
So how does my knowledge of Buddhist iconography actually affect my daily life? In reality this knowledge is like a vast storeroom that exists somewhere within my awareness or memory. When there's a need I can go there, unlock the door and turn on the lights, and once again I am back in this familiar territory where I can reconnect with all this archived knowledge. Yet in terms of my everyday interactions with people, all of this knowledge has little value, as hardly anyone I encounter in the everyday world of conventional reality has any awareness of its existence whatsoever. So what is most enchanting for me now is to have the freedom to follow my own heart in terms of interacting humanely with the suffering and grief of others, with all the awareness and compassion that has developed from this process. Art is outside, heart is inside: and when one has done the practice one should then start to give the performance.
c. Robert Beer